Retcon This! Decaying Threats: The Half-life of Supervillains

In the ever-evolving landscape of fandom, there are simply some things that should not have happened. In Retcon This!, we examine some of the more questionable aspects of our beloved geek properties.

Some bad guys are just meant to take a beating. These jobbers are most often the first act of an issue, allowing the hero some time for exposition – setting the stage as to just what point of their lives they’re at. Sometimes their early shenanigans will tie in to the overall plot, but more often than not, once they’ve been waylaid they’ll be out of commission for the course of the story. Characters such as these can turn up every other month in one title or another, getting their asses handed to them by this hero or that, and it does nothing to hurt their credibility. In fact, if anything, it builds their unique role in their respective universes. Take, for example, Shocker of the Ultimate Marvel Universe. Brian Michael Bendis made the Ultimate Herman Schultz Spider-Man’s ultimate whipping boy, and made a running gag of it. Here, it works.

For those of you who weren't reading Mighty Avengers at the time... yes, this is Ultron

But what about the masterminds? The extinction level threats? The serial killer psychopaths? I’m talking about big guns like Joker and Ultron and Apocalypse. These sort of villains – the type who think big and act bigger – are fan favorites. Favorites of the writers, too, who often can’t wait to sink their teeth into a property’s most notable archnemeses. When it comes to the Big Bads, however, their greatest weakness isn’t hubris or greed or any such character defining flaw. It’s overexposure, plain and simple. If a supervillain brings the entire world to a halt and no one can stop them, a writer has the chance to show the vulnerability of their heroes and force them to find new and exciting ways to triumph over evil. If that same villain is nigh-victorious every year or so, yet always manages to get the rug pulled out from under them at the last minute, well – the threat they pose begins to fade and they themselves become something of a joke.

Allow me to refer to the poster-child for overexposure of late: Ultron. In 2007, Mighty Avengers launched from Marvel with a story that elevated the threat of Ultron to epic levels. Essentially a computer program and not just a robot, Ultron took control of defense computer around Earth. It was only by introducing a computer virus into his programming that the villain was stopped, though even at the end of this story, his visage was shown on a computer screen to show he still functioned on some level. Hints at his eventual resurrection would be fine, but that SAME YEAR Ultron turned out to be the driving force behind the Phalanx in Annihilation: Conquest. Sure, it made some sense, because after all, he’s just a computer program. He can be anywhere. But it doesn’t change the fact that he’d just been defeated elsewhere – the threat he posed was beginning to diminish. Then, maybe two years later, Ultron resurfaced in the final issues of Mighty Avengers. In that time, he’d gone from being a threat to the entire world to being a cosmic level warlord to being once again little more than a petty robot. He was easily dismissed by Henry Pym and Jocasta with the majority of the world’s heroes unaware he’d even returned. Still, this wasn’t enough: this past year, Ultron has been both the looming threat of a possible future timeline and ominous portent at the end of The Avengers‘ “point one” issue. Five appearances in a little less than as many years, which means five defeats in the same span of time (okay, so that future was potentially averted and the last time he just sort of took off, but still…) It’s like the boy who cried wolf. Every time you bring a character like this out, you’re diminishing the impact they have.

Over at DC, Batman’s rogues gallery features two contenders for this throne: on the one hand, there’s Hush. When Tommy Elliot’s Hush was introduced, he was a master planner one step ahead of Bruce the whole way; a true challenge for the Dark Knight. In his two subsequent appearances, however, he was marginalized in a big way and it wasn’t until Dini took the reigns of the character for Heart of Hush and House of Hush that he was finally reestablished as a viable threat. In my opinion, it would be best if the character lay low for a bit. The flip side to the Hush coin is – no, not Two-Face – The Joker. Joker’s unique among this list however, as his repeated appearances don’t make him a less threatening character, but Batman a less believable hero. Batman’s moral code is all well-and-good, but when Joker resurfaces time and time again – as often as if not moreso than Ultron – killing innocents with each return engagement, it makes Bruce look all the more insane for letting him live. Again, this is a villain who needs to be used sparingly, or else the flaws of the fictional world in which he lives begin to show.

My solution?

This is why all the best villains have henchmen. The second-in-command, or sometimes even third or fourth. Leave the masterminds behind the scenes, let their underlings take the fall time and time again. You still have to be careful not to let the master plans be repeatedly thwarted; but look at someone like Ra’s Al Ghul. The Demon’s Head is almost always playing a hand of some sort against the Bat-family, and yet it’s rare that he and Batman actually face off. When one of his followers is stopped, a particular aspect of his plans grinds to a halt, but Ra’s always has another trick up his sleeve. More Big Bads need to be played in a similar way, acting through intermediaries until such time as the masterstroke of their plan is to be delivered. Remember, in real life, the boss rarely gets his hands dirty.

Barring that? Just learn to give some of the big guns a breather from time to time. Seeing them so often undone does nothing for their credibility as true threats to their heroes.


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Who ARE these people!?

Jason Kerouac is a co-founder of He spends roughly half of his waking life in servitude to the Giraffe. Raised in a town in New Hampshire you've never heard of, he now lives in Indianapolis, IN and is pretty sure that's a step in the right direction.

Comments (6)

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  1. Jason Kerouac says:

    For a somewhat similar take on the effects of prolonged exposure to some of our favorite heroes:

  2. D-Rock says:

    Perhaps another way to keep the villains credible is to give them small victories once in awhile. Even if their larger plan is thwarted, perhaps there’s some collateral damage that knocks the heroes down a peg.

    • Jason Kerouac says:

      I think this would also work well. Norman Osborn’s a good example of that, I’d argue. Most of his schemes afford him SOME degree of victory. On the flip side, my earlier nod to Apocalypse is the perfect example of a villain whose goal is so absolute, he’ll almost NEVER be able to score a V, and as a result – despite how powerful and dangerous we’re TOLD he is – he never quite seems to live up to it.

      I’d kind of like a story where the Illuminati extrapolate data that shows that every future ends with either Ultron or Apocalypse victorious. I feel that’s the only real avenue for exploring Apocalypse’s potential – longevity.

      • D-Rock says:

        Yeah… I use to love me some Apoc’, though in reflection I think he’s one of those villains that sounds good on paper but then I can imagine the writers thinking, “Shit.. how do I make him lose with credibility?”. I mean, there’s only so many times Sinister can stab him in the back.

        • Jason Kerouac says:

          This is why I feel what they need to do with Apocalypse is more or less what they’ve done with Sinister all these years… STOP PUTTING HIM IN THE FIGHT! The X-Men RARELY go up against Sinister himself, and even when they do, he usually escapes with a sense that they didn’t manage to STOP anything. But, with Apocalypse, every time HE’s defeated… he IS defeated. From now on, show us stories, battles, that don’t seem to have anything to do with him, and THEN show him watching the outcome. Basically, rather than having him directly testing everyone to see who’s strongest, have him accept that those tests are happening every day. The next time someone dies, just show Apocalypse with some giant chess board taking a piece off the playing field and commenting on the mutant race being stronger as a result.

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